"I heard Steve Harvey once say that we’re all like seeds on this earth. You have to get dirt on you in order to grow. Tough moments, people who don’t believe in you, but you will grow.
The sun will find you. The water will find you."
By the end of my interview with 24-year-old Marcus Brown, I had tears in my eyes. His passion, love, concern for, and commitment to Evanston’s children is truly inspiring. Marcus was born and raised in Evanston and lived right near the high school. He went to Lincolnwood and Haven and graduated from ETHS in 2010. He is an assistant teacher at Oakton Elementary School and teaches Hip Hop dance at Oakton, Walker, and Washington elementary schools, as well as at the YMCA.
Q: How did you become a Hip Hop dance teacher?
A: It’s a dream come true. I’ve been doing Hip Hop since I was a little kid, when I used to dance with my cousins in the basement whenever we were together. After I graduated, I went to NY to start dancing at the Broadway Dance Center in Manhattan. And that was awesome. But I had to come back home for surgery, and then my family who had lived in New York moved back here. So I had to stay. It worked out well, though, because I found out what I really, really wanted to do to serve the world, and it’s through children.
I started working at summer camps. I did coaching, and kept trying to figure out what I want to put my heart into. I stumbled into a lunchroom job at Walker and that was a life changing moment. The teachers really supported me let me know that I have a gift with students and kids.
Now I do dance classes after school for elementary students and on weekends for elementary and middle school students in Evanston. I’m also a teachers assistant at Oakton, and I love it there. I started as a lunchroom supervisor and I’m working my way up to be a teacher. Once the dance classes came around, I realized how much potential they have to help other people and to enrich my life also.
Q: How does teaching children to dance reduce violence?
A: It helps them by giving them a place where they can feel themselves and decompress from the stress in their lives. I get emails and calls from parents and students saying the dance class helps them throughout their day and gives them a better sense of who they are. Everyone has problems no matter your age or your color. But we can all come together and help one another.
I have a few students who I can tell have been through violence, maybe bullied. I tell them: those things don’t define who you are; they happen to the best of us, and we don’t deserve it. I say, don’t let that stop you; you have a voice and it should be heard. I communicate that through my dancing. I tell my students, even through the hardest, toughest moments, it will be okay.
Dancing shows them a different way to express themselves, to let go of anger and fear and learn to control those things through motion. Like, if a kid wants to hit something and they know they can turn it into dancing or singing or drawing, or whatever their passion is. You don’t have to be the best dancer, you just have to get in there and move.
My dance classes have really helped those students that struggle with those things to calm down. At the end of every session we do a yoga piece where were breathe in and breathe out. I try to show them that when you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re very up and excited or frustrated; whatever the emotion, it’s really high. So you have to slow down the music, slow down your breath and your thoughts, relax yourself and understand why you’re upset. When you’re able to control those things, everything else becomes easier to control and you get more control of yourself. It’s more than just a dance class. I’m saying, believe in yourself, work hard, don’t doubt yourself, and use all the support that you have.
Q: Have you experienced violence in your life?
A: Growing up, I experienced my aunt taken away very early, when I was about six or seven. She was shot and killed being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. The bullet was meant for the person she was with. I’ve had friends, people I’ve known, get shot and killed, people I used to work out with, people I’ve played basketball with. I’ve been to parties where fighting has happened. I try to stay away from those things now. I know how dangerous this world can be.
I was also involved in a code red at Oakton about a year ago when someone was on the premises with a gun after school during dance class. I put the kids in the closet area and I told them to stay down. They were so frightened. My mindset was to protect these kids, no matter what. I put a piano in front of the door. I wasn’t going to let anyone in there.
Q: What do you think is a cause of violence in Evanston?
A: I think this happens because a lot of our young people don’t have a place where they can feel safe, where somebody actually believes in them and that they can do something with their life. It starts really, really young. I’ve always believed, you have to catch them when they’re really, really young, when there’s still some hope to switch that mindset and build on that.
If kids are fed the wrong things constantly—either things that are said to them directly, or things they see and hear all the time, even on the news—then subconsciously it becomes part of their life and that's all they know. And once they reach a certain time in their life there’s no getting them back. Sometimes we have huge miracles where things can change that late, but its very rare. Thats why for me it's starting with the younger students. People tell me, Marcus, you can get better pay for teaching high school or college, but that’s not my point. That’s not why I’m doing it. It’s to make a difference. Period. The money will come, and it helps you with certain things, but it doesn’t always make the difference that needs to be made.
I think things have changed. It’s got to the point where I feel like people are getting tired and focusing on themselves more, not really pouring as much into others as they used to. Teachers need to be sitting down and listening to their students, knowing who they really are, investing the time. It takes a lot of love and care for an amazing person to be made. That’s why I am who I am today. I had people who loved and cared for me and I understood that. There are people like that out there, other than your family, who will love and care for you. You have to find them and be open to it. If you don’t have that around you at all, it’s hard to grow up and believe that it’s out there.
I tell my students, that I’m trying everything in my power to make them the best they can possibly be.
I feel like a lot of the violence is because of a loss of faith and hope. People say, why bother, why should I even try? They see so much imbalance in the world. That is a huge part of it. When people see how unfair the world is, they say, why should I even fight, no matter how much I try I’m not going to get anywhere. My goal is to help people think the opposite. I say, you have nothing to lose, so don’t hold back. That ’s what I live by.
Q: What was your family like when you were growing up?
A: My parents were very strict. They were strict because they wanted me to be the best that I could be and I owe them everything. They were together for my young years, but they split when I was 11 or 12. They’re an amazing team when it comes to making sure that I’m okay. They’re the best. I also have an older sister on my dad’s side. When I’m the most down, my mom is the one person who always brings me out of it. I don’t know how she does it. My dad is the best dad ever. Things got so much better as I got older. I communicate with him a lot more. He’s a really well known deejay, Deejay Les Brown. Everyone knows him in Evanston.
Q: Tell me about your work and how it inspires you.
A: There’s a real love between me and the kids. It’s amazing. It’s kids of all races, religions and income levels. I believe everyone has their own struggles, some might be greater than others, but at the end of the day it is about coming together.
The dancing helps me connect the emotion and the message I want to get across. If I’m feeling down, when I think about my students, it’s like a cure.
I remember when I was crying on my mom’s lap when I was about 21 or 22. I had come back from NY and I was in pieces. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was confused, and I felt that I wasn’t doing enough to make a difference. It was the darkest moment of my life. I didn’t even want to be here any more. My mom told me, Marcus, you can’t save the world. It was hard for me to swallow. Now, to come from that and get here and have people talk about how I helped their kid and their family believe again—it’s just amazing. I do believe, more than ever, I’m starting to help in that direction. If I’m not going to save it, I’ll die trying.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve come a long way?
A: I’m proud that I found my way. I heard Steve Harvey once say that we’re all like seeds on this earth. You have to get dirt on you in order to grow. Tough moments, people who don’t believe in you, but you will grow. The sun will find you. The water will find you. The teachers, the mentors. And you have to be there for yourself as well. If you want balance in the world, you have to bring it to yourself first. It starts with you. That’s what I tell my kids.